This is the sixth in a series examining potential free agents at positions where the Buffalo Bills have a need.
Wednesday’s trade that sent Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett to the Philadelphia Eagles appears to be a classic case of the rich getting richer.
The Eagles already had one of the NFL’s strongest pass-rushes. Bennett’s addition figures to take it to an even higher level.
Then there are the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t had much of a pass rush for the better part of three seasons.
Lorenzo Alexander gave them 12.5 sacks in 2016, but little else about the Bills’ front seven has resembled the overall dominance it showed in 2014, when the team led the NFL by dumping the quarterback for a loss 54 times.
Jerry Hughes, the highest-paid member of the unit, has produced a mere 15 sacks in the three years since his back-to-back 10-sack seasons in 2013 and ’14. Between health issues and mediocre play, Shaq Lawson has done nothing to justify the first-round pick the Bills spent on him in 2016.
Short of pulling off a trade similar to the one between the Eagles and Seahawks, the Bills will have to find help via free agency or the draft — or both.
Despite franchise tags eliminating the top two pending free-agent defensive ends from the open market — DeMarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys and Ziggy Ansah of the Detroit Lions — the Bills could find solid help from among the ends/outside linebackers expected to be available beginning March 14.
One of the better ends/outside linebackers due to hit free agency didn’t even play in 2017: Trent Murphy of the Washington Redskins.
Murphy, 27, missed all of last season with a torn ACL and MCL suffered last August, squashing a chance to build on the nine-sack season he had in 2016 and creating a noticeable hole in the Redskins’ defense. By all accounts, he should be fully recovered by the start of training camp.
Another end in a similar category is Alex Okafor of the New Orleans Saints. He’s recovering from a torn Achilles suffered last November, and his readiness for training camp is in doubt.
But Okafor, also 27, drew praise for his performance through the first 10 games of last season, registering a career-best 43 tackles and 4.5 sacks while generally making himself tough to block. He seemingly did enough to demonstrate he’s worth a longer-term commitment than the one-year contract to which the Saints signed him after he spent the previous four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, who made Okafor a fourth-round pick from Texas in 2013.
“Alex is a guy when healthy, he’s got a great motor,” Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim told 247Sports.com at last week’s NFL Scouting Combine. “He’s extremely tough and physical at the point of attack, so from what I saw on the tape in free agency meetings, he looked like he played well.”
Perhaps one of the more intriguing ends who should be available is Adrian Clayborn of the Atlanta Falcons. His 9.5 sacks last season are a bit deceiving, considering that six came in a single game because the Cowboys failed to have an adequate Plan B after an injury to tackle Tyron Smith.
Still, there is plenty to like about the 30-year-old Clayborn, who is sound with his technique and doesn’t have any real flaws in his game.
Remember Kony Ealy, who gave a dominant showing in Super Bowl 50 for the Carolina Panthers? You can bet Bills coach Sean McDermott, who was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator at the time, and General Manager Brandon Beane, who was in Carolina’s front office then, do.
Ealy, 26, spent last season with the New York Jets. He performed well through most of the first half of the schedule, then began losing steam. Nevertheless, he provided glimpses of the player he was in that Super Bowl. Whether he builds on that or shows why the New England Patriots let him go after the 2016 season remains to be seen.